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Caveat lector

11 January 1999

Our current howler: Leaving out the truth

Synopsis: Today’s Post editorial shows the price we pay when scribes choose to leave out the truth.

Mr. Starr’s Excess
Editorial, The Washington Post, 1/11/99 The ‘Love Child’ Story Turns Into an Orphan
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 1/11/99

Discussing the problems that journalists face in deciding when to print scurrilous charges, Howard Kurtz has this to say in this morning’s Post:

KURTZ: As these various sexual bombshells detonate or implode, journalists may be among the casualties. If they eagerly report the allegations, they are accused of wallowing in sleaze. If they ignore the allegations, they are accused of covering up for one side or another. If they try to check out the allegations, they are criticized for invading people’s privacy...

We agree with every word that Kurtz said. But the analysts’ cheeks began to rouge, here at DAILY HOWLER World Quarters, because we ourselves have long suggested a press corps bias has been at work in the case of What Linda Tripp Said.

We’ve suggested that it is the press corps’ love for accusers that has kept it from reporting Tripp’s grand jury testimony, in which Tripp contradicted Kathleen Willey’s account of her Oval Office encounter with Clinton. We’ve suggested the decision not to report What Tripp Said is part of a long-standing press corps practice, in which CelebCorps routinely suppresses information which casts doubt on what accusers have said. (And by the way, other examples abound. We regard this example as the most current and obvious.)

For the record, we have no doubt that many journalists have withheld What Tripp Said for reasons they believe to be principled. We suspect the reasoning would go like this: we don’t want to take part in a process in which those who charge Clinton get “smeared” for coming forward.

But, while we’re sure this reasoning may be sincere, we do think it’s wholly misguided. It’s simply impossible to defend the process that has occurred in the Willey case. The press corps gave wide attention to Willey’s charges, when the charges were made in March. Then, a lemming-like herd of pundits all swore they Believed Every Word Willey Said. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/2/98. Prepared to be embarrassed.)

To report the charge, and then suppress the challenge, creates an evidentiary imbalance that cannot be defended--especially since the contradiction comes from so credible a source. There is no doubt that Linda Tripp knew Kathleen Willey; and Tripp testified about Willey, under oath, in a setting where she had no incentive to lie. Tripp testified under a grant of immunity, and could get in trouble only for lying. To lie about the IC’s favorite gal in a dangerous situation like that--well, it would be a very strange thing for a savvy player like Linda Tripp to do.

But the suppression of truth about What Linda Tripp Said is more than just a remarkable case of unfairness to Clinton. The corps’ refusal to report What Tripp Said stymies debate in other areas, too. Example: this morning’s editorial, in the Post, concerning Starr’s indictment of former Willey friend Julie Steele. The Post scores Starr for having proceeded with indictment of so minor a figure. But the Post cannot argue a full-blooded case because it won’t report the things Linda Tripp Said.

Here is how the Post proceeds in scoring “Mr. Starr’s excess:”

THE POST: The indictment is disturbing, aside from the stupidity of the timing. It deals with a matter utterly marginal to the questions that provoked Mr. Starr’s investigation. It seems peculiar that of all the people who have either admitted to or been accused of lying under oath, Ms. Steele is so far the only one to face criminal charges. [Our emphasis]

The Post assumes the indictment’s timing is “stupid,” rather than a deliberate attempt to influence impeachment proceedings. But look how hamstrung the Post writers are by their failure to report What Tripp Said. Linda Tripp’s contradiction of Willey’s account dwarfs the contradiction of Julie Hiatt Steele. As The Hotline asked in its Friday edition: if Starr has indicted Julie Steele, why hasn’t he indicted Tripp too?

There may be a perfectly good answer to that, but the Post isn’t asking the question. The most obvious question about Starr’s conduct is one they refuse to discuss. Rather than report to readers the Things Tripp Said, the Post prefers to pen worthless, tamed musings. The Post withholds an obvious question about a very powerful official, because it refuses to report What Tripp Said.

We have said it before, and we say it again: here at THE HOWLER, we do not know what happened between Clinton and Willey. We have no way of knowing what may have occurred. We don’t know if what Tripp says is true.

But we also don’t know if what Willey said was true, and what Willey said got total coverage. It has profoundly affected what many Americans think about the character of President Clinton. And many believe, because of Willey’s account, that what Paula Jones said must also be true.

The suppression of Linda Tripp’s startling testimony is a deep offence to the public discourse. This morning, the Post again presents a sanitized treatment of a very important public official. And why does the Post present this cheapened account? Because, in the remarkable case of What Linda Tripp Said, it refuses to say what’s true.

What price truth? We’re puzzled by one part of Kurtz’s column this morning. Kurtz is quoting Star “editor” Phil Bunton about its latest ridiculous conduct:

KURTZ: Bunton, who warned last week that the story might be a “hoax,” acknowledged that “we did a pretty bad job of keeping this under wraps.” But he said the Star only “paid a very nominal amount to take the blood test.”

Bunton’s statement goes unchallenged by Kurtz. But this is what the Washington Times reported in its own sad page one story last Wednesday (1/6/99):

WOODY WEST, Washington Times: Now the Star is said to have found [Bobbie Ann Williams], obtained her cooperation, paid her a sum “in the low six figures” for her trouble, and is conducting DNA tests...

Is “the low six figures” now a “very nominal amount” for a public liar to take a blood test? Somebody’s spinning somebody here. The contradiction should have been challenged and resolved.

And incidentally, isn’t this whole thing a tale of the times, a remarkable example of press corps culture? On the one hand, a prostitute, apparently paid for a lie, gets her story spread all over town. On the other hand, a credible figure gives detailed, sworn testimony, and because it challenges a treasured accuser, no one in town dares report it.